This 2013 CD/Download re-release comprises the whole of the cassette release Nondo DPLP004 featuring Crystal Palace, and the first part only of cassette Nondo FMC2 featuring the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. The latter also contained performances by the One Music Ensemble which will now appear on separate re-issues and FMC2 will therefore not be re-released in its original form.
The members of Crystal Palace were Roy Ashbury on percussion (in the centre of the stereo field), William Embling on trumpet and things (including jaws harp, matches etc on the right), and Barry Leigh on things (including bass clarinet, radio, piano etc on the left). As its name suggests, this was essentially a London based band, and indeed this recording was done in London. Although Wolverhampton born Roy had been involved with various local Midlands projects and musicians in the early 1970s (including with myself with Nondo recordings and in various performances), by the time of this recording he was based in London and forming various alliances with other London based musicians involved on the free improvisation scene and with the London Musicians’ Co-operative - Larry Stabbins, John Russell, Dave Solomon, Anthony Barnett and many others.
The John Stevens-Trevor Watts version of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble needs no introduction as members of the so-called first generation of free improvisers. Their locally recorded performances from a 1973 gig at the former Wolverhampton Polytechnic, organised by Roy, became points of comparison with local musicians of the second generation of free improvisers on the Nondo label: DPLP003 with various contributors and FMC2 with my One Music Ensemble. These comparisons were not always like-for-like and showed more differences in approach than congruities, particularly the latter release. While Crystal Palace do not use the kind of devices John and Trevor use as stepping off points into their free improvisations, there are such striking similarities in the resulting performances that suggests a much closer musical relationship between these two bands than many others. While this might be dismissed as mere surface style rather than a true understanding of Stevens’ methodology, it nevertheless deserves some attentive listening. Hence this new coupling.
Although Crystal Palace present six titles, I suspect that these were an afterthought following close listening to several playbacks of the recording. Performances of totally free improvisation are in essence a continuous process albeit with points of repose and periods during which, for the listener, there is little of interest happening. While this is an inevitable trade-off in live performance, a recording intended for release allows for some (albeit subjective) editing by the performers, in itself an inevitable trade-off of issuing a product. What starts off as a continuous process ends up as a suite of separate ‘pieces’. The titling process can end up either as a perfunctory chore or, as in this case, an opportunity to express some humorous, bizarre and even surreal images: Quoz, What A Shocking Bad Hat, Curious Anecdote Of A Sailor And A Tulip, Examples From The Bayeux Tapestry, There He Goes With His Eye Out, and Has Your Mother Sold Her Mangle? Roy’s original cover collage - including an image of the Great Exhibition venue itself - also gives expression to the humorous, bizarre and surreal as well as the diversity of sounds to be heard. Indeed one criticism that could be raised is that this diverse colourisation might simply serve to obscure the scarcity of significant musical ideas. It is, though, for the listener to decide.
On the other hand the three part single title Flower by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, is a piece with an intrinsic structure determined by one of John’s simple stock-in-trade devices for getting an improvisation started, together with the proviso that players relate their musical lines to one another and the group as a whole, whether it be two (as here) or twenty-two. This process applies across most of John’s output, giving a unity to his work which does not rely on trade-offs. The pared down pairing of just the two players - John on his diminutive drum kit and Trevor on soprano - heightens the tension created by this minimalist approach and thus retains an on-the-edge-of-the-seat interest from first to last. In many ways this kind of procedure would suggest a lack of movement, a mere treading of water or marking time. But the opposite is true as these two players somehow lead us through a labyrinth of meaning, rather in the way a Samuel Beckett work leaves us with a sense that we have arrived, without knowing how, somewhere beyond the apparent bare bones of the script. There is, of course, a rather obvious clue in the title John chose for this improvisation: a Flower growing from bud to full bloom.
Review comments of NondoDPLP004 at the time did not make comparisons between first and second generation improvisers. Peter Riley,* for example, emphasised the ‘quiet…slow…detailed…almost hippie…delicacy’ of Crystal Palace, albeit with some ‘hard edge resistance’, in summing up the original cassette; while Barry McRae** cited Embling as the ‘most impressive performer’ with some ‘imaginative percussion’ and an overall sense of a ‘team effort’, together with some comments on ‘spatial exercises’ and ‘melody of a disjointed nature’. Free improvisation, along with other jazz idioms and rock music, generally suffers from a lack of insightful analysis which goes beyond mere personal opinion and/or preference, leaving it for the audience/listener to apply their own personal taste to decide on the merits, or otherwise, of this music. There were no reviews of NondoFMC2 (A or B side), but there is plenty of commentary on the various versions of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble available from a variety of sources. It was, however, John’s own opinion that this particular version of Flower was one of the best he and Trevor had recorded, and what better recommendation can there be than that.
. *Peter Riley Coda Issue 172 (1980) **Barry McRae Jazz Journal International August1981.
released May 18, 2017
Roy Ashbury - percussion, Will Embling - Trumpet & Things, Barry Leigh - Things
Recorded London 1975
SPONTANEOUS MUSIC ENSEMBLE
Trevor Watts - Soprano Saxophone, John Stevens - Drums
Recorded Wolverhampton Polytechnic 4 April 1973
Works by Ashbury-Embling-Leigh and Stevens published by D & ED Panton Music